By Deborah Zafer
The rabbi calls to ask how many chairs you will need.
You hold the phone against your chest and turn to your brother to ask, but see he is deeply involved in a conversation about bridge rolls.
“Fifty,” you say, and accidentally end the call, so you hear the rabbi saying, “Every night?” as you hang up, and this means you say, “Yes, every night” to no one, and simultaneously find yourself wondering if the rabbi is single, because his voice is nice. Deep.
Two weeks ago, you were eating bridge rolls with your mum.
“Does anyone eat these outside funerals these days?” you asked, because that was the only time you ever saw them, and you wondered if a food, like a dinosaur, can become extinct.
“I eat them,” she said, although, to be fair, she ate anything.
Push the memory back down. Down. Down.
What if you could write one true thing?
What if you could write about how, when she was in the hospital, you wished for it to be over, whilst at the same time wishing it would never be over? The twin urges fighting within you selfishly, and neither being anything to do with the person suffering. All about you. Always all about you.
“Is it time now?” your brother asks, standing up. It is kind of funny to see him in a suit, but also it is not.
You think it isn’t time, but you say it is, because neither of you wants to sit there anymore in the emptiest of houses.
Someone has arranged a car. You have no idea who, but you ride through the streets pretending you are in a gangster movie on the way to a burial where paparazzi hide in the bushes with the FBI, waiting to photograph the glamorous attendees. You play the part of the bereft widow, eyes cast down.
Your aunt is the first one you see. She is crying. You try to avoid her but you can’t, so you hug her and end up squashed into the enormous breasts you used to be so fascinated by as a child, because you could not understand how she stayed upright.
Staying upright is the order of the day, so you let her hold you and you raise your eyebrows at your brother over her back as if you don’t like it, but maybe you do. It is hard to know.
Your friend has already warned you about the noise.
“No one ever forgets the noise,” she tells you as she squeezes your hand in the time before. But still you are not prepared as the soil lands and lands and lands.
You are not allowed to shovel the soil because you are not a man. Your brother lands the first blow, then uncles and cousins go next, and you are aware that you are smiling at them as if to say ‘thank you’ and you wonder if that is what you should be doing with your mouth. Maybe not.
You try to think of something nice you did with your mum or that you said to her, but a memory keeps coming back of the time when you told her you hated her because she would not let you go to Glastonbury since you might take drugs. She quoted King Lear at you, and said having you was “sharper than a serpent’s tooth.” You thought it was funny at the time and told your friends about your mum who’d insulted you in Shakespeare. They laughed because their mums just said “Shut up, stupid bitch,” and you all agreed that was worse but now you are not sure. You were a stupid bitch. And you went to Glastonbury anyway. So that showed her.
There is a phrase your mum always used to say whenever she felt you were straying too far from everything. Etz chayim hee l’machazikim bah. It is a Tree of Life for Those of Us Who Cling to It.
‘You must understand where you came from,’ she said. You must understand the way to happiness is through the tree, and that you are part of it and always will be, and so will your children and your children’s children, forever and ever amen.
You and your brother used to laugh about it. Now you get it engraved on the headstone.
Back at the house, you hear a man saying that it is “a very nice spread”. He means the bridge rolls. You have no idea who he is, but you feel proud. You know this would have mattered to her.
At one point you almost bump into her as you cross the room and she nods and smiles because you have remembered to put out the good tea set and you have remembered to cover the mirrors even before the rabbi came around to check.
The rabbi is not single.
He mentions his wife within five minutes of meeting you. You imagine her as one of those women who was not born religious but later in life came to it with fervour, and now looks forward to Shabbat with shining eyes and uses a slow cooker. She probably also cuts up her children’s sandwiches into animal shapes.
Once you went to Israel and tried to become one of these women. You even joined a yeshiva but the men were too ugly and there was no irony anywhere. And everyone was American, even those who weren’t.
Anyway, the rabbi is not your type, which is probably just as well.
When it is time for prayers the rabbi stands on a chair and directs the Men to one side of the room and the Women to the other. The bridge rolls are cleared away.
You have made a collage of pictures of your mum throughout her life. Someone you used to work with stands near the ones of her in the 1960s when her hair was blonde and long, and says to you that your mum was sexy. It is a truth universally acknowledged that your mum was definitely sexier than you are. You nod at him. Yes.
When the prayers start, you press pause on Joni Mitchell.
You and your brother sit on low chairs all alone.
You keep wondering where all the grown-ups have gone.
When the crowd thins out, you see your ex-boyfriend. You haven’t seen him for four years. His last words to you, delivered on the North Bound platform at Embankment were, “Fuck off back to Hendon.”
You still think this is the worst insult you have ever received, and you have laughed a lot about it with your friends, leaning into cocktails, because of the word ‘Hendon’ making it seem so provincial and so Jewish. If he had just said “Fuck off,” or if you had just lived somewhere better, then it wouldn’t have been so bad.
“Fuck off back to Hampstead.” That would have been okay.
He looks sheepish but he wishes you ‘long life’ because that is what you say at these times, and so it turns out that those are the last words you will ever exchange.
It will take you three months to clear the house. Luckily you don’t know that yet.
When everyone has gone, you and your brother sit in the house, and because everything is all still there and it still smells the same, you can pretend that it is. You heat up something from the freezer. It is hard to tell what it is, but she made it so you eat up every last bit.
Your brother says that he will be going back to LA as soon as the shiva is over because there isn’t anything here for him anymore.
You want to say, “What about me?” but you don’t because the answer is already there.
When you go up to your old childhood room at night, the house is quiet. The absence is the loudest thing you have ever heard.
You go over to the window and look at the garden where you have sat a million times with your mum on the swinging chair underneath the magnolia tree, feet tucked up and asking over and over in all the languages you know: What shall I do, where shall I go, who shall I be — and never any answer.
In the morning, you throw out the rest of the bridge rolls and scatter the crumbs in the garden for the birds.
Your PhD tutor sends you a text saying, All okay?
You delete it and change your WhatsApp status to an “Out of Order” sign, which is possibly funny and possibly just weird.
There will be more prayers tonight, and the next night and the night after that.
You will stand and sit at the right moments.
And still she will not come back and say Well done. Not even once. Even though you are wearing a skirt and you know all the words and you are remembering every day to do all the things the way she always wanted you to.
She still doesn’t come back, and all she has left you with is this one thing that feels so heavy you can’t even begin to lift your arms to receive it, let alone cling or climb.
Afterwards, the rabbi comes to walk you around the block as if you are being released from confinement. He tells you to notice the trees, the plants, the sky, the people, and to ease yourself back into the world.
He talks expansively, and you think that maybe, after all, he is someone you could make a life with if it wasn’t for his wife and your faithlessness and all the other things that are stopping you from asking him, there and then, to marry you and make it all better.
You say goodbye to your brother, and he holds you close and tells you that you are going to be okay.
You walk back into the house. You let your hands touch all the surfaces as if you might find messages hidden there. You uncover the mirrors and try to see yourself in them. You read every single book on every shelf. You eat every morsel in the house. You wear each one of her clothes one by one and spray yourself with all her perfumes. You sleep in every bed, or try to. You answer the phone and pretend to the sales people that you are her. You message your friends and tell them you are growing and that grief is a way of knowing yourself better and they should not be afraid of it. Then you delete the messages before they can read them, and instead you just send them a crying emoji and wait to see who replies first. Maybe you are not being normal. No one is here to tell you.
This goes on for many hours, or days, or years. And then it doesn’t.
You sit in the garden and rock yourself on the swing. The magnolia is in bloom.
You ask your questions to the wind.
This time you listen out for answers.
The Tree. The Tree. The Tree.